Tuesday, December 13, 2016

End of the Year Wrap Up

It's hard to believe 2016 is drawing to a close, but I will say it felt like this year was a long one to me. I had a fair number of releases this year, though, some were re-releases after getting my rights back. I'm extremely happy to now have those titles back out! For the titles that dropped this year, I had....

Song of Souls, Terra Series Book 3 - February
Kissing Cody Starr - Re-release - April
Demon Duke, Paranormal Nobles Book 2 - May
Model Love - Re-release - July
Heart's Gamble - October
Soldier of Fortune - November

It was quite a busy schedule, and I expect 2017 will be much lighter for me. For the coming year, I'm going to focus on my series. The planned stories that I'm going to do my best to finish and have released in 2017 will be...

Demon Prince, Paranormal Nobles Book 3
Lions Rampant: TNT - Conquest series Book 9
Terra Series Book 4, as of yet untitled

I would also like to work on Instincts Book 7, but whether I'll be able to finish it and have it released in 2017 will remain to be seen. Really, my focus for writing in 2017 and beyond will be my series until they've all been brought to as much of a conclusion as they can have.

My thanks and gratitude goes out to everyone for their support. Here's to a new year filled with new stories and new adventures :-)

Thursday, November 24, 2016

New Release: Soldier of Fortune

The wait is over, and a little sooner than expected! I'm extremely happy to announce that my new novella, Soldier of Fortune, is now live at MLR Press! Very soon, it'll be rolling out to Amazon, AllRomance eBooks, Barnes & Noble, and more.

I had a blast writing this story, and working with the two main guys, Conrad and Lucas. I hope everyone will enjoy getting to know them and their story!

Mercenary. Gun for hire. Soldier of fortune. That’s Conrad Dane. Maybe he hasn’t always done things the right way in his life, but that doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy. And sometimes, it takes doing the wrong thing, to get the right results. These days, he’s backing out of the underworld, taking more jobs in the open in personal protection. He’s contracted to protect a rising politician and gets more than he expected. Not from bad guys, but from the politician’s son, Lucas.

Lucas likes the good guys, both in his favorite comic book superheroes and the men he forges relationships with. Conrad isn’t the kind of man he goes for, but that’s not stopping Lucas from being drawn to him, wanting to be closer to him. 

Conrad and Lucas can’t deny their attraction toward each other. When someone targeting Lucas’s father pulls Lucas into danger as well, Conrad will do whatever it takes to keep Lucas safe.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Sneak Peek: Soldier of Fortune

Only one more week, and my newest story, Soldier of Fortune will be available! It's scheduled to release at MLR Press on November 25th. So, if you're looking for something to buy on Black Friday, may I recommend swinging by MLR Press ;-) With my last release, it hit Amazon, AllRomance eBooks, and Barnes & Noble very quickly too, so hopefully the same will happen for this one and it doesn't get lost in the holiday madness by the big distributors.

But what I'm really here to do is share a peek at the story with everyone! Here are the first two chapters for you to check out. I loved working on this story, and adore Conrad and Lucas so dang much. I hope everyone who checks out the story will too!

Mercenary. Gun for hire. Soldier of fortune. That’s Conrad Dane. Maybe he hasn’t always done things the right way in his life, but that doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy. And sometimes, it takes doing the wrong thing, to get the right results. These days, he’s backing out of the underworld, taking more jobs in the open in personal protection. He’s contracted to protect a rising politician and gets more than he expected. Not from bad guys, but from the politician’s son, Lucas.

Lucas likes the good guys, both in his favorite comic book superheroes and the men he forges relationships with. Conrad isn’t the kind of man he goes for, but that’s not stopping Lucas from being drawn to him, wanting to be closer to him. 

Conrad and Lucas can’t deny their attraction toward each other. When someone targeting Lucas’s father pulls Lucas into danger as well, Conrad will do whatever it takes to keep Lucas safe.

Chapter One

Releasing a shaky exhale, Lucas gazed over the audience. There were a lot of people here. More than he thought would turn out. Every seat in the auditorium was filled, and more people lined the back wall and crowded the floor. It kicked up his nerves, despite the fact that no one was there for him. They were gathered to hear his father speak and say what many of them hoped, that Arthur Hartman would be running for senator representing the State of Florida.

He glanced at his father, standing behind the podium at the front of the stage, his baritone voice carrying through the auditorium as he delivered his ideals, his beliefs, his hopes for the future. Lucas knew everything his father stood for; they were the same beliefs he held, wanting a world where compassion ruled more than money, where people cared for and helped each other, the planet, and all her inhabitants. They both wished for a world in which equality and acceptance ruled before judgment and scorn, and where those in power understood they were in that position because of the trust people had placed in them.

Idealistic? Sure. Some would even say innocent, naïve. But wasn’t it better to strive for an idealized greater good? While it might be unattainable, in the act of trying to reach it, change for the better would still happen.

His father had already taken steps to create change with his renewable energy company, Green Hart. The company specialized in engineering and manufacturing products for green energy, solar, hydro, and wind. His father had started the company manufacturing solar panels for businesses and private homes, then his father decided, why stop there? Within thirty years, he had created one of the greatest powerhouse corporations in the United States—if not the world—for renewable energy, and employed hundreds of people.

Challenges and creating change were nothing his father hadn’t faced before, but this was different. He couldn’t believe it when his father told him he was running for government. He hadn’t understood why his father would take on such a thing. But as his father said, there was only so much that could be done in the private sector to enact change, when the leaders of the country seemed more concerned about who was lining their pockets.

He couldn’t argue that, but he wasn’t sure it was the best move for his father. Being in government could be dirty, and that was never how his father had done any kind of business. He understood his father wanted to push for the things he believed in from the other side of the fence, but he worried about the obstacles—and threats—his father faced.

Those threats were the true reason behind why Lucas was clasping his hands to hide the trembling. That morning, a call came through his father’s cell phone, an unknown and disguised voice telling Arthur Hartman to back down, drop his run for the Senate, and go back to quietly running Green Hart. Although, his father never had been all that quiet in running his business. Regardless, it made him less of a threat to some…perhaps many…than taking a step into government.

His father had laughed, saying, “Why should I be afraid of anyone who hides their identity and disguises their voice? I’m not one to be cowed before cowards.”

Lucas scanned the crowd. He didn’t think whoever was behind the threats was a coward. He thought they were serious. And they could be there now, hidden among the crowd.

His father’s voice boomed through the auditorium, murmurs of approval following his words as the people became entranced with what he was saying, their excitement rising with his father’s statements.

“I don’t need to boast about my accomplishments or the things I’ve done. We’re part of this community together. I see faces I recognize out there, my friends, my employees.” A few cheers from people at being acknowledged hooted throughout the crowd. Arthur pointed to a middle-aged man standing in front. “Ralph, I remember when we got your house set up with solar panels. And I remember too when you came back, laughing and showing me a check from the electric company, because your home was producing not only enough energy to sustain itself, but to start turning back your meter and feed energy into the grid.”

“I still get those checks!” Ralph shouted, people laughing and a few more cheers following his statement.

“And that’s a good thing! At least, I say it is. There are others who don’t believe the same. Who don’t believe in much of anything that I’ve said here today. But what I’ve said, what we’re here for today, are the values of us in the real world, in this community.”

Lucas could sense the charged energy in the room. Everyone was in key with his father, hanging on his words, their support and belief palpable. It was infectious. Of course he believed in his father, but standing here listening to him, he was overcome with pride, as well. This was a man whose footsteps he’d always wanted to follow in.

“They’re the values of us who live in more of this world, than those who stay tucked away behind the closed walls in Washington D.C.,” Arthur continued. “And I want to take our values to the capital. I want to throw open the doors and show them what really matters to the people. And I want to do it with your support as the next senator for this beautiful State of Florida!”

The crowd erupted with cheers and chants for Arthur Hartman.

Lucas let out a relieved breath. It was over. The rally was finished and nothing bad had happened. Maybe the threat had been hollow after all.

His father made a quick move, turning to glance back at him, smiling…and flinched hard. His smile wavered and faded. He looked down at the left side of his chest. A small, wet dark stain was growing larger on his father’s immaculate light gray suit.

Lucas sprang forward, lunging toward him. “Dad! Get down!”

He jumped for him, throwing his father to the ground. The wind whistled by his right ear as he tumbled to the floor with his father. An impact pinged into the metal sign behind the podium, featuring the silhouette of a green stag, standing proud. Hitting the floor, Lucas glanced up and back at the bullet hole in the sign.

Chaos exploded through the auditorium. The guards leaped into action—finally—one grabbed Lucas’s arm and hauled him up. Two more collected his father, the rest forming a human shield around them both as they ushered them backstage. Once cleared from the auditorium, they laid his father on the floor, one guard tearing at the suit jacket and shirt to get at the wound beneath.

Horror froze Lucas. He stared at the wound, blood flowing freely from it. His father’s face was already pale, and the sight snapped Lucas out of his shock. He ripped off his own suit jacket, wadding it into a ball and pressing it over the gunshot wound. “Hold on, Dad. It’s going to be all right. An ambulance is coming.”

His father lifted his hand, finding Lucas’s, and gripped it. “See? I told you whoever that scumbag was…that he was a coward. Wasn’t even man enough…to show himself.”

Lucas forced a smile for him. “Yeah, you were right. You always could see right through people, even when they don’t show themselves. But don’t worry about him, don’t even think about him. He’s not worth it.”

Closing his eyes in a long blink, his father moved his head in the smallest of nods. “But as soon as I’m on my feet again…I’ll be out there…showing them…” His voice hushed, but rather than making him sound weaker, Lucas heard steeled determination.

Bowing his head, Lucas closed his eyes. He wasn’t going to lose him. He couldn’t, not like this. His father had to pull through and when he did, he would make sure his father was safe…somehow.

Chapter Two

Conrad let his rental sedan roll to a stop and looked at the home beyond the tall, ornate steel gates. The long drive coursed between trimmed hedges, which was stupid. If someone made it over the gates and wall, the hedges—four feet tall and dense—would make perfect cover for a surprise attack. The victim would be rolling along, relaxed and feeling safe at being home, then…bang! Bullet through the window.

He scanned up the columns on the sides of the gates, one of them mounted with a security camera which was fixed in place. It didn’t look like the rest of the wall had cameras or any other security device. Why the hell did people think bad guys always came through the front door?

He assessed it all in under two minutes and it was obvious the grounds weren’t secure. He didn’t have high hopes for the rest of the place. Chances were there’d be a standard security system. With the size of the place and knowing his client had deep pockets, it’d probably be one of the better systems, but still standard issue and easily bypassed for any upper-level criminal.

Turning to the passenger seat, Conrad tipped up his sunglasses and flipped open the folder on the seat to a photo of his new client, Arthur Hartman. Fifty-eight years old, founder and owner of the Green Hart Corporation, world leader in clean energy and renewable energy. Had a major facility outside Naples and was one of the main employers in the area. All in all, there wasn’t much dirt on the guy. He appeared nearly as squeaky clean as the energy he was developing. Early in his business, he had some…connections, but had a good reputation with them now.

Conrad flipped the page to the next sheet. Personal life…it didn’t seem Hartman had much of one. He was a widower, his wife, Lisa, having passed ten years ago from a brain aneurysm. Supposedly. It might not be right for him to suspect anything shady, but he knew human nature too well to not.

Hartman’s closest relative was his son, Lucas, twenty-eight years old, having recently returned from living up north in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he had attended MIT, graduating with a PhD in environmental engineering; when he’d gotten his Bachelor’s he made sure to minor in business management. He hadn’t dug up much information on the son, but he wasn’t the client. He could gather more information on him while working the job, if he thought it was necessary. His gut told him the son wasn’t behind the attempt on Hartman’s life, but he wasn’t ready to rule him out, either.

He finished skimming the file and closed the folder. Cranking the wheel, he turned the car into the drive. He stopped in front of the gates and leaned out of the window to hit the call button on the intercom. A moment later, a woman’s voice came through.

“Hello, how may I help you?”

“Conrad Dane. I’ve got an appointment with Arthur Hartman.”

Silence followed, then the woman’s voice spoke again. “I’m sorry, Mister Dane, your appointment isn’t until tomorrow.”

“I’m nothing if not punctual. Is Hartman here or not?”

Her voice more terse, the woman said, “Just a moment, please.”

Conrad sat back in the driver’s seat to wait, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. He knew his appointment was tomorrow, which was why he showed up today. When people were prepared and had plenty of time to get their game face on, it was easier for them to keep their secrets. Do the unexpected with them and it made it more likely they’d fumble. Stranger things had happened than someone setting up a “hit” on themselves to gain an outpouring of emotional support from people, and he didn’t need to waste his time on that kind of bullshit.

The gates rattled and began to slide open. Conrad drove through and toward the two-story mansion. It was a pretty swanky joint. White, with wooden beams as accents, and wood shutters that looked ornamental, rather than functional. Black panels covered the roof, for solar energy he guessed, given the client’s job. Roses, decorative shrubs, and other flowers lined the front of the mansion. In the center of the circular drive was a small pond with an old fashioned water wheel turning and churning the water. Grass sloped up to the pond, small trees lined it, making it seem like a picture from colonial times. He couldn’t see around the back of the house, but he knew from its location and from viewing it on Google Maps, it was on the coast, had a nice view of the gulf, and a large pool.

Parking to the side of the walk leading up to the front door, Conrad switched off the car and stuffed the folder into his black backpack. He opened the door and climbed out. Bounding up the steps, he spotted a security camera perched in the left corner of the porch, peering down at the space before the door. Easily spotted, easily avoided.

He didn’t get a chance to knock before the door opened. A short, middle-aged woman stood on the other side. She regarded him with pale blue eyes through small glasses. “Mister. Dane, I presume?”

“You should’ve verified that before presuming and opening the door, but yeah.” He reached into the inner pocket of his black leather jacket, drawing out an ID card and flashed it at her.

Her lips turned down in a frown, clearly not amused by him or his statements. “Fine, then. Come in. I’ll show you to Mister Hartman.”

Conrad stepped in and to the side, giving the woman time to close the door. He made a quick assessment of the room. Open and spacious, decorated in neutral colors. Pretty little decorative items dotted the space. Hanging on the walls were expensive modern art paintings that in his opinion, a kindergartener with finger paints could put to shame. Not really his tastes, but it fit with the classic image that so many of the upper crust strove to fulfill.

The woman turned from the door, her strides slow but confident as she took the lead. “This way. I’m Nancy, and I manage the household. Mister Hartman informed me that you would be staying here for the duration of your…service.”

“That’s right. Easier to keep him alive if I’m not sitting in a hotel waiting on room service.”

She glanced back at him, that disapproving frown on her lips. “You seem rather cavalier about the task you’re charged with.”

Conrad rolled one shoulder in a shrug. “If you’re going to get shot at, might as well keep a sense of humor about it.”

Her voice tight, as though she was putting effort into not snapping at him, Nancy said, “No one thought it was very funny that Mister Hartman was nearly killed.”

“I don’t know. I think I’d laugh at the guy who took the shot for missing. But that’s probably more of two peers ribbing each other. From your point, I can see where it’d be bad if your bread and butter got toasted.”

Nancy stopped and spun toward him. “I don’t know who you think you are, but—”

“Nancy.” The baritone voice came from a nearby room and to the left, and though the single word wasn’t spoken harshly, it carried authority.

Giving Conrad one last glower, Nancy turned and continued into the room. She stopped past the doorway. “Mister Hartman, here is Mister Dane.”

Conrad passed through the doorway. Arthur Hartman was tucked down in a plush, brown suede recliner, facing a large TV where a golf match was on the screen. Conrad barely refrained from rolling his eyes. Golf…nothing like wasting a beautiful afternoon by playing fetch with yourself.

Arthur Hartman looked much like his photo, the dark brown of his hair mostly overcome by gray, but still thick. He had a handsome, strong face, and hadn’t shaved that morning. His face had more lines and was paler than in the photo. Nearly having their life wiped out tended to do that to most people.

At the back of the room, windows running floor to ceiling overlooked an in-ground pool, and beyond to the beach and gulf. The foamy water rolled lazily onto the shore, then washed gradually back. It sent yearning through him to be on the beach in front of his house. But he could only lounge in the sun for so long before he got the itch to get on the move again. Though, that urge was growing less and less these days.

Conrad put his attention on the only other person in the room, a young man standing in front of the windows, his back to him and the sunlight framing his lean silhouette. Had to be Lucas Hartman, doing his sonly duty in tending his wounded father. Having him close would turn out to be handy in noticing anything suspicious with him.

Lucas glanced over his shoulder, meeting Conrad’s gaze. His crystal blue eyes widened in surprise and his gaze traveled down Conrad’s body.

Conrad felt a grin tugging at the corners of his lips. If Lucas did have nefarious intent toward his father, he’d learn about it within a day. The guy wasn’t good at masking what he was feeling, such as in that moment, finding him attractive. And he couldn’t deny, the feeling was mutual.

Lucas was shorter than him, he’d guess him to be about five foot nine to his six one. His dark brown hair was swept back, longer on top than on the sides. Lucas’s facial features were soft and achingly pretty, full lips, high cheekbones, thick, dark lashes framing his blue eyes. He wore a red T-shirt with the lightning bolt symbol for the Flash on it, and that did make Conrad’s lips crack into a grin. A good boy who like a good guy superhero. He definitely wouldn’t be Lucas’s type. Still, the job just got a lot more interesting.

“Mister Dane,” Arthur said, bracing his right hand on the arm of his chair to push himself up. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”

Conrad swept by Nancy, moving to meet Arthur. “No need to get up, Mister Hartman. I know you’re still recovering.” He extended his hand down to him. “It’s good to meet you.”
Arthur took his hand, his grip strong…and forced to be so. Conrad could read it in every move Arthur made that he was still suffering from the gunshot.

“And you, as well.” Arthur motioned toward the young man. “This is my son, Lucas.”

Hearing his name seemed to spur Lucas out of staring at him and he moved forward. He reached for Conrad’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Conrad took his hand, Lucas’s grip more tentative than his father’s, his hand softer, smaller, but pleasantly filling his own. He held Lucas’s hand for a few seconds longer than needed, meeting his gaze and allowing a grin to slip onto his lips. “I doubt that. No one actually thinks it’s nice to meet me. Still, the words are appreciated.”

A slight smile touched Lucas’s lips. He broke their held gaze and turned to sit on one of the sofas that ran parallel with the recliner at the head.

Arthur glanced toward Nancy. “Would you please bring some refreshments for us and our guest?” He looked at Conrad. “What will you have to drink, Mister Dane?”

“You can call me Conrad, and a beer would be great.”

Lucas shot him a reproachful look. “So you like to drink when you’re on the job?”

Stepping around the corner of the sofa opposite Lucas, Conrad dropped down onto the thick cushions. “No, I don’t. But since I’m not planning on shooting anyone in the next few hours, I think I’m good having a beer.”

Lucas fixed him with a hard glare.

Conrad smiled back at him.

Arthur cleared his throat. “I think we could all use a beer. If you would, please, Nancy?”

Nancy bobbed her head in a single nod and left the room.

“Nice place you got here,” Conrad said. “I wasn’t expecting anyone who’s all about green energy to have a place this big. Probably leaving quite the carbon footprint, aren’t you?” He caught how Lucas twitched forward, ready to retaliate, but Arthur spoke before him.

“I can see how it would look that way, but this house is self-sustaining, powered by solar and hydro energy. Solar does most of the job, but I’m sure you noticed the water wheel out front. Its purpose is more than to look pretty. The water is on a continuous rotation that feeds into the electrical system to the house. We also have geothermal heat, not that it’s needed often here.”

“I stand corrected, then. Not often I meet a man who spouts off his ideals and actually lives by them.”

“What’s the point in having beliefs and ideals if you’re not going to live by them?” Lucas asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. A little thing called do I as say, not as I do. For a lot of people, presenting the image of those ideals is nothing but a means to get them what they want; money and power. Example being, most politicians.” Conrad turned his head toward Arthur, giving him a pointed look.

“You’re not wrong in that assessment, but it’s my goal to break the typical mold.”

“And that’s probably why someone wants to break you.”

Silence followed his statement.

Conrad took in both Lucas’s and Arthur’s reactions. Arthur lowered his gaze, his expression pensive, saddened, but unafraid. Lucas’s fear, however, was clear, and it was focused on his father. Fear and worry all but emanated from him. Conrad sat back, bringing one leg up to rest his ankle on his opposite knee. Yeah, Lucas was innocent of this…and probably was in a lot of other ways, too.

The final thought brought all kinds of possibilities flashing through his mind.

Nancy returned carrying a tray holding three bottles of beer, a large bowl of tortilla chips, another bowl of salsa, and a third of queso. She placed it on the coffee table between the sofas.
“Wow, you’re good,” Conrad said, grinning up at her.

She gave him another scowl and turned to leave, Arthur calling, “Thank you,” after her.
Conrad sat forward, grabbing his beer and swiping a chip through the salsa. “I don’t think she likes me.”

“She’s protective of us and the home, that’s all,” Arthur said. “This has brought a lot of stress and worry on her.”

Conrad popped the chip in his mouth. “Figured. I don’t think you have to worry much about as far as an attack here at home, which is a good thing because your home security is shit. If they wanted to knock you off in private, you’d have been dead by now. I have a feeling whoever is doing this, wants it public.”

Arthur nodded solemnly. “That’s my feeling, also.”

Conrad took a long drink of his beer. “Of course, that’s not to say their plan won’t change. Especially since their first one failed, thanks to their incompetent gunman.”

Lucas snapped his head up, having not yet taken his beer. “Incompetent? He shot my father and nearly killed him.”

“Exactly. A competent gunman would’ve dropped him on the first shot.” Conrad looked at Arthur. “From the report I read, you moved at just the right second so the bullet went to the side of your heart, not through it. You were saved by pure dumb luck. Rare when that happens, but also nice when it does. Had the gunman aimed for your head, like he should’ve, when you turned, his shot would’ve gone through your temple instead of the planned forehead hit.”

“He did aim for his head,” Lucas said. “On the second shot.”

Conrad brought his gaze to Lucas. “If you have to take a second shot, you’ve already botched the job. Nine times out of ten, a second shot is too late, as it was with your father.”

Lucas’s jaw visibly clenched for an instant. “You seem to know an awful lot about killing people.”

Conrad held out both arms. “That’s my job.”

“Who the hell are you exactly?” Lucas turned to his father. “Where did you find him?”

Arthur lowered his beer from taking a sip. “He came highly recommended.”

“By who?”

“It doesn’t matter. People I trust…” Arthur’s voice softened. “For this kind of thing.”

Lucas stared at his father, and Conrad could see he was trying to read him, understand what his father meant. “I thought you said you were hiring bodyguards.”

“That’s what Mister Dane is.”

“You’ve hired one man? That’s all?”

“Because I’m all that’s needed,” Conrad interjected.

Slowly taking his gaze off his father, Lucas focused on Conrad again. “So what are you? A bodyguard? Or a hitman?”

Conrad stretched his arms up and back, folding his hands behind his head. He saw Lucas’s gaze flick down to his torso, then lock on his two guns, revealed in his shoulder holsters with his jacket falling open. “I’m whatever I’m paid to be.”

Lucas’s jaw dropped slightly, then he turned on the sofa toward his father. “I don’t agree with this. How do you know he can be trusted?”

“Because I’m a professional, that’s why,” Conrad said.

“A professional what?” Lucas pressed.

“He’s a mercenary, Lucas,” Arthur spoke up. “He’s done some work for people I know.”

“And you think he can protect you better than qualified bodyguards?”

Conrad lowered his arms and sat forward, elbows on his knees as he looked at Lucas. “Those qualified bodyguards didn’t do such a hot job a week ago, did they? I can tell right now that you’re not real savvy to the dirtier business of the world. The bodyguards in the black suits? All they’re good for is keeping back the occasional nut job who gets the inkling in their head to throw a water balloon at a public figure. Against the real bad guys, those bodyguards are a joke. They were damn slow to react when your dad got shot, weren’t they? You got to him before they even realized what was happening.

“While I get you might not agree with my way of doing things, I’m here because your dad made a contract with me and for the duration of that contract, I’m going to keep him alive by whatever means necessary, and I don’t give a shit if you agree with my methods or not. Something tells me the end result in having a few more years with your dad is what really matters. So you’re going to have to suck it up, buttercup, because I’m going to be around for a while.”

Lucas gasped, his jaw fully dropping this time.

Conrad flicked a glance at Arthur and found the older man smiling behind his beer as he took another drink. And with that, he got the impression that Arthur thought his son could use a little education in the world, too.

Lucas turned to his father. “Dad, this isn’t right.”

Arthur sat forward with a wince, taking a chip and dipping it into the queso. “Son, there’s what’s right, and there’s what’s necessary. Sometimes they coincide, sometimes they don’t. In this case, I believe with hiring Conrad, they do. Hopefully, as you get to know him, you will, too.”

Lucas stared at his father for a long moment, then shook his head and stood. He threw another disapproving glance at Conrad and walked away, leaving the room.

Conrad watched him go, his gaze dropping to Lucas’s ass, the jeans tight enough to hug the rounded curves. He looked away as Lucas turned out of the room and sat forward, taking another chip and dipping it in the salsa. “Cute kid you got there.”

Arthur laughed softly, but the sound was full and deep. He put a hand on his chest to the left, as if to steady the pain. “He’s a brilliant and good young man.” Arthur paused, his smile fading. “But, your words about him being innocent to…dirty business weren’t unfounded. I don’t want to say he’s been sheltered to the world, but he’s spent a lot of time in school, pursuing his PhD. Gaining knowledge behind the closed walls of academia can occasionally leave one naïve to the world at large. Part of me wishes he could stay that way, but I know how the world can take advantage of someone with as kind and generous of a heart as he has. I’m afraid he’s getting a crash course now in the darker nature of people.”

“Sometimes that’s the best way to learn.”

“Yes, sink or swim. He’s tenacious, so I know he’ll succeed. I think being around you might actually be good for him.”

Conrad let out a dry laugh and reached for another chip. “I’m not exactly the good influence type of guy.”

“I know. That’s why I said that.”

Glancing toward him, Conrad saw the smile on Arthur’s face, and one came to his own. In that moment, he knew they were going to get along well. He flicked his head toward the TV. “Anything on besides these guys chasing after a little white ball?”

Arthur laughed and reached for the remote. “How about a bunch of guys chasing around a bigger leather ball and tackling each other?”

“That works.” Conrad reclined on the sofa, throwing a glance toward the doorway, but disappointingly, Lucas hadn’t come back. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, hoping to see the guy again, but now he was positive that Lucas being involved would definitely make this job more interesting.

Copyright 2016 by S.J. Frost and MLR Press

Monday, October 31, 2016

Blurb and Cover Art Reveal: Soldier of Fortune

It's time for a cover reveal! And do I have one to share that I absolutely love! With a tentative release date of November 25th at MLR Press, I'm very happy to share the blurb and reveal the cover art for Soldier of Fortune. This story is approximately 45,000, so it's in the range of a long novella.

I loved writing this story. One of the main characters, Conrad, is one of my favorite types of guys to work with, confident, strong, does and says what he wants and doesn't care what anyone else thinks. And the other lead, Lucas, is so sweet and kind. Loved working with both of them <3 

And I'm thrilled over this cover! It's absolutely perfect, all the way down to the Grim Reaper tattoo that Conrad has. The cover was made by Jared Rackler, who has made my covers for A Little Bit Country, To the Other Side, and Kissing Cody Starr. I always love his work and this time is no different. I'm so happy to have another cover by him!

Now, it's my pleasure to share with everyone the cover and blurb for Soldier of Fortune!

Mercenary. Gun for hire. Soldier of fortune. That’s Conrad Dane. Maybe he hasn’t always done things the right way in his life, but that doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy. And sometimes, it takes doing the wrong thing, to get the right results. These days, he’s backing out of the underworld, taking more jobs in the open in personal protection. He’s contracted to protect a rising politician and gets more than he expected. Not from bad guys, but from the politician’s son, Lucas.

Lucas likes the good guys, both in his favorite comic book superheroes and the men he forges relationships with. Conrad isn’t the kind of man he goes for, but that’s not stopping Lucas from being drawn to him, wanting to be closer to him.

Conrad and Lucas can’t deny their attraction toward each other. When someone targeting Lucas’s father pulls Lucas into danger as well, Conrad will do whatever it takes to keep Lucas safe.

Friday, October 21, 2016

New Release: Heart's Gamble

I'm happy to announce that my new novella, Heart's Gamble, is now live! It's available at MLR Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, AllRomance eBooks, and a few other vendors, too. It's been a long road for this little story, and I'm so happy that it's finally out.

I do hope everyone who checks out story will enjoy it. It may be a shorter story, but I fully believe it's one with heart :-)

Thank you all so very much for your support!

Shawn Carlisle has dedicated his life to rescuing horses. Having grown up around the Thoroughbred racing industry, he knows for every champion racehorse, there are thousands more who end up broken and forgotten. When he rescues a mare named Heart’s Gamble, he’s heartbroken over her poor condition and he sets out to find her former owner to hold him accountable.

Grant Arrington inherited a horse farm that’s deep in debt from his father. He left years ago, not in agreement with his father’s harsh training methods, and is now trying to decide how to move forward. When he’s confronted by Shawn, he wants nothing more than to do right by Heart’s Gamble, and in the process, get closer to the passionate horse rescuer. The only problem is, he has to convince Shawn to take a gamble on what they could have together.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Sneak Peek: Heart's Gamble

Hello, everyone! Only one more week, and my new novella, Heart's Gamble, will be released! It's schedule to go live at MLR Press on October 21st, though, often titles release the evening before on their website.

This one is a novella, about 30,000 words, 90 pages in the PDF file that I just finished reviewing for release. While it's a shorter work, I think it packs a lot of emotion, but I could be biased because honestly, this is a story with a subject matter than I'm very close to.

I'm a horse lover and horse owner. If you're friends with me on Facebook, you know I "like/love" A LOT of horse photos and pages. In my life, I have my older gentleman Paint gelding, Chick, my fiery Quarter Horse mare, Charm, and two pony geldings, Ice Cream and Trigger. Each of them have their stories of how they came to be with me and my family, including little Ice Cream having been an auction rescue. I've been around a lot of horses for a lot of years, and that's probably why this story hits a little closer to me personally.

The story is one of hope, second chances, and love. And I hope everyone will enjoy this look at Heart's Gamble :-)

Shawn Carlisle has dedicated his life to rescuing horses. Having grown up around the Thoroughbred racing industry, he knows for every champion racehorse, there are thousands more who end up broken and forgotten. When he rescues a mare named Heart’s Gamble, he’s heartbroken over her poor condition and he sets out to find her former owner to hold him accountable.

Grant Arrington inherited a horse farm that’s deep in debt from his father. He left years ago, not in agreement with his father’s harsh training methods, and is now trying to decide how to move forward. When he’s confronted by Shawn, he wants nothing more than to do right by Heart’s Gamble, and in the process, get closer to the passionate horse rescuer. The only problem is, he has to convince Shawn to take a gamble on what they could have together.

Chapter One

Shawn closed his eyes, needing a moment of respite from the scene before him. How could anyone do this to another living creature? How could someone care so little? Have no compassion? A horse didn’t get into this kind of deplorable condition overnight. It happened slowly, gradually, day after day of not being given food and care, of being left ignored…forgotten.

Had the mare been kept in a little dirt paddock or maybe locked in a stall, waiting for food and water to be brought to her? Since she hadn’t died of thirst, his guess was she was most likely kept outside, probably drinking water out of muddy puddles or a mucky trough. Every time she saw a person, had she perked up with the hope of getting food and attention, only to watch them walk away, disappear, leaving her with nothing?

Shawn opened his eyes and glanced behind him, to the sides, at all the small pens holding horses, ponies, donkeys, and mules. There were so many others—so many—who at that moment were waiting for their fate to be decided, or who were being loaded onto the trucks for the “killers,” those people who came to these low-end auctions and bought cheap horses to sell for slaughter.

Technically, it was illegal to slaughter horses in the US…for the moment. It was an ongoing war between animal rights activists and the slaughter industry. The victor of each battle was determined by who could either voice the biggest outcry to the public, or fatten up the pockets of politicians with their “contributions.” And even though horse slaughter wasn’t currently legal in the US, it was a hollow victory, since the politicians had provided a loophole to the law; horses could still be transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter.

Shawn looked again at the chestnut Thoroughbred mare. She stood in the holding pen, her head so low her nose nearly touched the ground. He could count every rib on her down to her sunken flanks and protruding hip bones. Mud caked her dull coat, and it along with manure covered the mare’s legs so thick, Shawn could barely make out three white socks, two on her back legs, one on her right foreleg.

The mare was littered with bite and kick marks from being crammed in the small feedlot pen with far too many horses, all their sanity pressed to the limits. When the lots were full, the horses could hardly move without bumping into another horse and one who was a stranger, not a well-known pasture mate, not a member of their herd. On top of that, he didn’t doubt the horses knew the danger they were in. Rough hands grabbing at them. Harsh voices shouting at them.

The horses who came to these auctions, they were the forgotten ones. They’d outlived their use to the ones who’d owned them and were dumped off at the auction with the hopes of getting a few dollars out of them, or just to get rid of them.

He understood that life changed for people. Sickness, employment, death, moving…there were many factors that could happen in a person’s life making it so someone would have to sell their horse. For those who put in the effort of finding a new, caring home for their horse, he didn’t begrudge them. His own family had gone through changes and he’d moved their horses on to better-suited homes. But to send a horse off where their fate was unknown and death was a high probability? That was something he had a problem with.

Each horse here had a story. An overworked plow horse from an Amish farm, ponies whose children had outgrown them, former show horses who’d failed at producing ribbons or were long past their glory, broodmares too old to continue breeding. There were ones too spirited or untrained to be considered safe riding mounts. Ones not pretty enough, not the right coat color, had a conformation flaw, or…the list was endless and ongoing.

And there were the ones like this mare, who from a glance he suspected was a former racehorse. Maybe she lost too many races. Maybe she was pushed too hard and broke down. As with the others, her story was known only to her.

He couldn’t save them all. He knew that, but he’d be damned if he couldn’t save a few and he was going to give his all to save this lady. He could see it in her, how beautiful she would be filled out and strong, her coat burning red, her mane and tail flowing free rather than the tangled mess they were now. She would have her second chance with him, because that’s what he did. He gave second chances to the forgotten ones.

Shawn walked across the pen toward the mare. He stopped in front of her and slightly to the side. The mare didn’t move. Not a twitch of an ear or flare of a nostril to show she heard or smelled him.

Shawn kept his voice soft as he spoke. “Hey, pretty lady. I’m going to get you out of here.”

The mare remained motionless.

He saw that not only was she broken in body, her will was broken as well. That was a much more difficult thing to heal, but he’d done it before. Once he got her back to the farm, got good food in her, gave her a bath, treated her wounds and injuries, she would sense she was safe and under good care. Little by little, she would come back to the stunning creature she was meant to be.

Shawn pulled out his phone and switched it to the camera. He moved slowly around the mare, taking pictures. He would need “before” shots for his rescue’s website. People needed to see what cruelty and neglect looked like, then in a few months when he took his “after” pictures of her, what compassion and care could do.

Finished, he tucked his phone into his back pocket and approached the mare again. He stroked her neck, then bent forward, curling his arm under her head. “C’mon, girl. Lift your head up for me.”

The mare gradually brought her head up with his encouragement. Not to full height, but good enough. Shawn shifted more in front of her and took hold of her upper lip, turning it up. As he suspected, numbers were tattooed on the inside of her lip. She’d been a racer. Most likely ran too hard, broke down, not worth the cost to feed her, so she was chucked aside for the next young money-earner to fill her stall. At least with these numbers, he could contact the Jockey Club and get more information on her.

It wouldn’t be long before some of her secrets were revealed.

The mare protested him holding her lip with a shake of her head. Shawn smiled at seeing that little bit of spirit in her and knew she had heart. She might not have been a winner on the track, but to have survived all she had made her a champion.

Shawn slipped the lead rope off his shoulder and clipped it to her halter. He gave the lead rope a light tug. “Let’s get you out of here.”

The mare stepped forward to follow. He moved at a slow pace for her and kept watch on the right foreleg she favored. He’d seen bowed tendons enough in his life to suspect that was the cause of her lameness. That would be another challenge to get healed. Lots of stall rest would be in her future, but with her overall condition, he didn’t think she’d protest to it. He only hoped she wasn’t in foal.

With her condition, he doubted she was, but then again, he’d seen it before. He’d saved two mares before in condition similar to hers who were confirmed in foal during their vet check back at his farm and blessedly, were able to deliver healthy foals months later. Out of all he saw, pregnant mares in the feedlot pen bothered him the most. Whenever he came across a mare who was obviously in foal, he bid hard and higher than any kill buyers wanted to go to get her. Breed, color, conformation, none of it mattered. All that did was getting two lives saved.

Step by step, Shawn got the mare out of the holding pen, across the auction yard, and to his trailer. He tied the mare to the side of the trailer and went to the back to open it. As he lowered the trailer’s ramp, a big head peeked over the divider in the trailer and a deep whinny greeted him, despite the mouthful of hay in the Belgian’s mouth.

The Belgian gelding was in almost as sad of a state as the mare, but the big boy still had the sweetest, most loving disposition. Draft horses were also ones he tried to snatch up when he saw them at the auctions. They were favorites for the kill buyers because the slaughterhouses paid per pound and the drafts sold dirt cheap at auction. Even a malnourished draft horse brought in a bigger payout.

Shawn patted the Belgian on the rump and prepared a hay bag for the mare. He walked out and untied her, the mare hobbling up the ramp without hesitation. He secured the short trailer tie to her halter, unclipped the lead rope, and closed over the padded divider. Now he had to get the other three horses he’d bought and he would be on his way back to Forever Hope Farm with a full trailer.

He gave the mare one more pat on the back and turned to step out of the trailer.

A low, rough whinny left the mare.

Shawn glanced back to her, startled that the mare had finally made a sound. She looked at him with a tired eye as she pulled at the hay. He smiled and started down the ramp. “You’re welcome, lady.”

Chapter Two

Holding his head in both hands, his fingers buried in his hair, Grant stared down at the bills scattered across the desk’s surface. He had the money to cover them, but the figures were still daunting. As the saying went, if you want to make a small fortune with horses, start out with a large one. He knew that to be true, but it didn’t help that his father hadn’t been the best businessman. Or horseman. Or father. Or human being.

Grant leaned back in the chair and slumped down. He looked around the office, the walls lined with dark wood shelves holding trophies and photos of Black Oak Farm’s past champions. His gaze went to a picture of a bay Thoroughbred colt, his coat slick with sweat. At the horse’s head, a bald man firmly held the reins in one hand, a trophy in his other hand, and he frowned for the camera. Even standing in the winner’s circle, his father hadn’t smiled.

But that’s how his dad was. He expected his horses to win. When they didn’t…

Grant pushed away from the desk and stood, walking to the large window overlooking some of the pastures and the few remaining horses on the farm. His father had slowly sold off most of the farm’s stock over the three years between his diagnosis of lung cancer and his recent death. Having been away for so many years, he hadn’t realized the extent of all his father had done with the farm. Had he known, he would’ve tried harder to intervene and keep the best horses. When his father’s health first started failing him, he’d told his father he would take over the farm, but his father wouldn’t listen to him. Instead, his father yelled, “You’ll get it soon enough when I’m dead!”, followed by accusations that he was trying to rush his father to the grave. After that, he left him to do what he wanted.

For as long as he could remember, his father had been a hard man and they never agreed on how horses should be trained. His father’s infamous saying was, “God put these animals here to serve man, and by God, that’s what they’ll do.” He really believed his father didn’t even like horses, but simply stayed in the racing business because it’s what he was raised in and it brought in money. Having a true passion for the horses and the sport, that most definitely wasn’t a driving force for his father. Any way to make a dollar in it, that was his father’s passion.

And Bob Boomer, Black Oak’s longtime trainer, had the same mentality. Heavy with a whip and hard on the horses, that man didn’t care what it took to win so long as the first horse under the wire was carrying a jockey wearing the farm’s trademark black silks. Firing that son of a bitch was one of his happiest moments in the past twenty years. Between his father and Bob, they took the prestigious reputation his grandfather and great-grandfather had earned for Black Oak Farm and tainted it.

Rumors of harsh training methods followed Black Oak horses at the track. Whispers that the horses were shot up with drugs circled around them. Then proof in blood and urine testing on more than one horse coming back positive for banned steroids and substances confirmed those beliefs. Fines and suspensions were issued. More races were being lost than won, and it was speculated that Black Oak hadn’t won a race fairly in years. The black silks of the farm became a black spot on the track.

Not that his father cared. Being unwanted at the big tracks wasn’t a problem, because he could move to the smaller ones. A twenty thousand dollar purse was a far cry from the two million dollar one of the Kentucky Derby, but to his father, money was money, and all of it was good. All it meant to his father was to get more horses running…and running…and running. The ones who didn’t run fast enough found their way off the farm, to whatever fate awaited them.

And that’s why twenty years ago, at eighteen years old and days after graduating high school, he left the farm, his father, Kentucky, and moved out west to California, where he mentored under Colleen Masters, training racehorses in the way he believed was right, where the horse came first.

After a couple of years under Colleen, he picked up a few clients to train their horses and now, he was settled with a couple who owned a large farm, but for them, racing was a hobby, not a business. Their main thing was the thrill of seeing their horses run, and if the horse won, great. If not, that was okay, too. It was a different world than what he’d grown up in. Now here he was, back in his old world again.

He didn’t know what to do. Should he find the remaining horses good homes, or work to rebuild the great legacy the farm used to have?

Grant sighed and rested his head on the cool glass of the window. He should let it go. The farm’s legacy was ruined. The glory, gone. He should get the horses new homes, hire a real estate agent, list the farm for sale, and go back to California permanently. He’d never been one to take the easy way out, but in this case, it might be the best option.

A knock on the door broke into his thoughts.

Grant turned from the window and looked at the door. “Come in.”

The door opened. Jimmy, the barn manager, poked his head in. “Sorry to bother you, but there’s a guy at the gates wanting in to talk to you. Says he’s from some horse rescue place, Forever Hope.”

Grant barely suppressed a growl of annoyance. He’d dealt with more than one supposedly nonprofit horse rescue over the years and seen a few who used their donation money to stuff their pockets instead of caring for the horses. He’d even been part of an endeavor to rescue a few ex-racehorses from a rescue who’d “rescued” them. “Go ahead and let him in. I’ll handle it.”

Jimmy nodded and ducked out of the doorway.

Grant stepped out of the office and to the aisle of the main barn. He strolled down the aisle, all the stalls empty with the horses out to pasture, but even when they were in, the barn was far from full. At one time, all thirty stalls had been filled with racehorses or young racers in training. Now all it held were three older broodmares his father hadn’t gotten around to selling and two older timer geldings who used to pony the youngsters around the track.

Grant glanced at the stalls, closed and no longer being used. At this point, maybe it would be better to let the farm go. It was certainly closer to being ready to sell than it was to being a fully operational racing farm again.

He stepped outside and stopped. Glancing to his right, he spotted a blue Ford Super Duty dually coming his way…a newer model. So this horse rescuer was rolling up in a sixty-thousand dollar truck to beg for a donation. That took some balls.

Grant folded his arms across his chest. He had thought he might hear the guy out, learn a bit about his organization. Now, his interest had drastically gone down.

The truck stopped near him and the engine cut off. The driver’s side door opened. A lean, fit man hopped out, then turned and stretched back into the truck.

Some of Grant’s annoyance dissipated. The guy’s jeans hugged the curves of a very fine ass. He let out a low groan of self-deprecation. Was he really that easy? One glance at a hot ass and suddenly his interested was piqued again? But in his defense, his interest was piqued in a whole other way.

The man stepped back from the truck, holding papers in one hand, and closed the door. He lifted his sunglasses, setting them on top of his head of thick, dark brown hair and revealing bright blue eyes. His features were chiseled and strong, stubble dusted his jawline, cheeks, and outlined his lips. He wasn’t very tall, even toward the shorter side, but the gray T-shirt he wore conformed to the muscles in his torso, and his biceps filled out the sleeves.

The man flashed a bright smile at him. He spoke, his voice deep and smooth, colored with a Kentucky drawl. “Mister Arrington, I presume?”

Grant unfolded his arms. Damn, that voice. He may have grown up in Kentucky and there was a time when he’d had that accent himself, but he’d lost it from his twenty years in California. Hearing it in this man’s voice was enough to unravel him.

Yep, he absolutely was that easy. So, so easy.

Stepping forward, Grant extended his hand. “That’s me.”

The man took Grant’s hand, his grip firm. “It’s a pleasure. I’m Shawn Carlisle, the owner of Forever Hope Farm. I rescue and rehabilitate horses and get them into good, caring homes. Got a great staff of mostly volunteers, everyone working to do a little good in the world and by these horses that have seen the worst people can throw at them.”

With those words, Grant felt his defenses rising, despite how attractive the other man was. The guy was already making his pitch for money. “I see. And I’m sure you do plenty of good, but I’m afraid at this time, I’ll be unable to make a donation to your efforts. Judging by that truck, your farm is doing just fine. Now if you’ll excuse me…”

Grant turned, spotting Jimmy with Wyatt and Travis, the other two hands, standing nearby and knew they’d see to the guy leaving.

“Now wait just a damn minute!”

Grant startled at the shout and spun around. All cordiality had vanished from Shawn’s face.

Shawn stood scowling at Grant, pointing a finger at him. “I didn’t come here for a handout, and even if I did, what kind of truck I’m driving doesn’t mean a damn thing. And I don’t go around begging for donations. Do some people help out and give to the farm? Sure they do. But I don’t go asking for it. I’m more than capable of supporting it on my own. You ever hear of Castle Royal Farm?”

Grant stared at Shawn, taken aback by the man’s boldness and sudden fire. And he had heard of Castle Royal Farm. It was another racing stable and local. If forty-five minutes away was considered local. At any rate, one thing he knew about Castle Royal, they used to put out some great horses and had been one of the most respected farms to ever bring a horse to the track. But it was years ago that they were one of the rulers of racing. He didn’t know what happened to the farm, hadn’t ever looked into it, but they weren’t a presence in racing anymore. “Yeah, I know of it.”

“Well guess what, chief? That’s my place!”

Grant shook his head, knowing his confusion had to be showing. “What? You just said you owned some other farm.”

“Because they’re one in the same. It’s been in my family for generations and my granddad, Roy Carlisle, left it to me. My family made more than plenty of money in racing, as I’m sure you know if you know anything about the business, but when I took over before my granddad passed, he told me to do some good with it. Pay it forward to those who’d done so much for our family. And by those, he meant horses. He always treated his stock as if they were kings and queens, princes and princesses, and he wanted to give more back. Unlike some.”

Anger rose in Grant. Shocked as he was at all this man was saying to him, there was more than one implied insult to Shawn’s words. He took a step forward. “So since I’m not wanting to give you a handout, that means I’m not a good horseman?”

Shawn moved forward a step, also. “I’m not going to pass judgment on that, despite what’s known about this farm, but what I can say for sure is you don’t listen real well. I already told you, I’m not here for a handout.” He held up his phone, tapped the screen, and turned it toward Grant. “I’m here because of her.”

Grant moved his gaze to the phone. His breath left him as if he’d been punched in the gut. On Shawn’s phone screen was a picture of a chestnut mare, her head hanging so low her nose was nearly on the ground. She was malnourished, ribs clear, hip bones protruding, flanks and temples sunken, and even in the picture, he could tell her right foreleg was swollen with a bowed tendon.

The screen slowly began to blacken. Shawn lowered the phone and tucked it into his pocket. “That mare is Heart’s Gamble. You remember her?”

Grant slowly shook his head.

“Of course you don’t,” Shawn said, his tone sharp. “She was just one of many, right? A winner as a two-year-old. Big hopes for her at three. But when enough money was offered, you were still willing to let her go. Except, she was already having soundness issues, wasn’t she? Too many races, too young. But hey, you made your money off her, so why not make a little more and sell her off before those issues became known. Only problem was, her new owner didn’t want to deal with her problems, either. Just had her shot up with some painkillers, ran her in a few more races, then dropped her into a claiming race.”

“She raced a couple of more times after that, then she dropped off the circuit for a year and her next stop…a low-dollar auction. Thanks to the Jockey Club’s record keeping, I was able to get her papers and track down her other owners to learn about her, up until her last racing owner who sold her to some lady who won’t return my calls.”

Shawn held up the paper in his hand before Grant’s eyes. “According to her registration papers, she was born here. Since you raised her, I thought maybe you’d give a shit about what happened to her, but I can see now I was wrong.” He spun around, storming toward his truck. He tore open the door and jumped in. The vehicle rumbled to life, and he leaned out of the window. “On the off chance you do care, I’ll have you know I’ve had that girl under my care for the past three months and she’s fought hard to recover and she keeps fighting. And I’m not going to give up on her like you and everyone else did.”

Caught in the whirlwind of Shawn’s anger—and passion—Grant couldn’t get a word out. By the time he thought of a response, Shawn had the big truck swung around and was heading down the lane toward the gates. Grant stood motionless, watching until the truck disappeared from sight.

“Well, shit. That’s a hotheaded man if I ever met one.”

Grant slowly came back to his surroundings at hearing Jimmy’s voice. He turned to him. “Do you remember the horse he was talking about? Heart’s Gamble?”

Jimmy pushed his baseball cap back as he scratched his head. “It’s been a few years, but I remember her. It was a damn shame your daddy let her go. That girl was quick. Put down times faster than the colts he had in training. I told him she could be a Derby contender, but he blew me off. So did Bob. Neither of them thought a filly could hold against the colts in the big races.

“But I didn’t think the same. She could’ve been the next Winning Colors, the next Ruffian, the next Zenyatta. She could’ve ran with the big boys and showed them nothing but tail and dust as she pulled away in front of ’em all. Wouldn’t have mattered anyway, though, since Black Oak wasn’t running at the big tracks anymore when we had her, so they were racing her at the smaller tracks, no stakes races. That’s probably why you never heard of her.”

Grant nodded. Heart’s Gamble had been one of thousands of horses running every day in small purse races across the country. That was racing. Only a handful of races had the prestige and fame the likes of the Kentucky Derby, the Santa Anita Derby, the Breeder’s Cup. Same as only a handful of horses made the cut to that elite level of racing, and for all those champions who did, there were countless others running their hearts out in nameless races.

“She was a beautiful filly,” Jimmy continued. “Coat such a bright red. A real sweet disposition to her, too. She was filling out to be a big girl, but same as he did with all his youngsters, your daddy got her in training and running early. I can’t remember off the top of my head how many starts she had as a two-year-old, but I know it was a lot. Probably what got her broken down later on. A damn shame.”

“Yeah,” Grant mumbled. So many thoughts, images, and words raced through his mind—the mare’s horrible condition, the disgust in Shawn’s handsome face, in his tone, the accusations…wrong accusations. Shawn was right on all he’d said, but he was pinning the blame on the wrong guy.

It seemed even in death, his father’s reputation was dogging him.

Resentment burned through him, though it was pointless since no matter how much he yelled or screamed, his words would never reach his father. They never had when his father was alive, either.

Grant turned to go back into the barn and to the office. “C’mon, Jimmy. Let’s see if we can dig up some information on Heart’s Gamble, maybe some training or racing videos of her.”

He stepped into the barn, his gaze lowered as he walked. Along with the image of Heart’s Gamble, there was one other he couldn’t shake—how damn fine Shawn Carlisle was, even in anger.

Copyright 2016 by S.J. Frost and MLR Press